Broadcast news without the facts

2013-04-24 04.50.02 amNICK CATER

Published in The Weekend Australian, February 4, 2014

THE art of good reporting is to let the facts speak for themselves. First, however, the facts must be discovered. It is the ABC’s inability to accomplish this most basic task that is compromising the integrity of its news service.

Recent reports that Australian naval officers tortured asylum-seekers demonstrate how far news reporting has strayed from the fundamental principle that, in the reporter’s reasonable judgment, the facts presented are true.

The only facts so far established beyond reasonable doubt are that some asylum-seekers returned to Indonesia with burns on their hands and that they have alleged rough treatment while their boat was being turned back. Beyond that there is nothing but conjecture and assertion, elements that previous generations of reporters would have instinctively spiked or buried towards the bottom of the story with heavy qualification.

The recent documentary One PM Central Standard Time, tracing CBS TV’s live coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, is a reminder of standards that were once meticulously observed. When Walter Cronkite goes live to air on the morning of November 22, 1963, all he is prepared to state as fact is the eyewitness account of a news agency journalist: “In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at the president’s motorcade.”

Even when CBS’s own reporter Dan Rather tells the newsroom the president is dead, Cronkite attributes the report to Rather with the qualification that it had yet to be confirmed.

In the ABC’s coverage of border security, however, the distinction between facts and assertions is difficult to spot. Scepticism, an essential tool in the reporter’s kitbag, is absent altogether. The field test for truthfulness – the commonsense test – is rarely applied.

Peter Lloyd’s introduction to a report from Fiona Ogilvie on PM last October, for example, began with an unqualified statement: “An asylum-seeker being held in detention on Nauru is expecting twins.” Yet the assertions in the story were contested.

The Sydney Morning Herald had reported 10 days earlier that the woman was seven months pregnant and living “in tents in temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius and above”. Lloyd and Ogilvie claimed the asylum-seeker was six months pregnant and confined to a tent “where daytime temperatures can reach 50 degrees”.

Without empirical evidence, the temperature inside the tent can only be guessed at, but it is a matter of record that daytime temperatures on Nauru in October and never rose above 29C.

Towards the end of the story, Ogilvie casually throws into another alleged fact. “PM understands that there is another woman on Nauru who is pregnant, also with twins, and that she has diabetes.”

Eight days later, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison flatly denied the story, urging journalists to “more thoroughly interrogate the sorts of claims that are represented to you”.

Yet the ABC had invested too much in the multiple pregnancy to give up, and on AM on November 8 reported that an asylum-seeker flown from Nauru “gave birth via caesarean section in a hospital in Brisbane”. The mother was a “Rohingya woman from Myanmar”, AM reported. In previous reports she was identified as Iranian.

We also discover she gave birth to only one baby. Presenter Tony Eastley tells us the woman “was told after undergoing scans on Nauru that she was having twins, but it wasn’t until she was brought to Australia that she discovered that wasn’t the case”.

This incredible claim fails the believability test. A mother who had undergone scans in her final weeks of pregnancy and was misdiagnosed as carrying twins. Can anyone suggest a similar case of an obstetrician seeing double?

And what of the second woman on Nauru who “PM understands” is also pregnant with twins? That claim, as best as we can establish, has never been repeated, but neither has it been corrected. The story is left floating in a soup of “truthiness” – assertions one wishes to be true, as opposed to facts known to be true.

Like the multiple-birth mystery, the “facts” of the recent turn-back story are fluid.

On January 8, Lloyd reports the claims of a Sudanese man, speaking by phone, who claims in broken English to have been in a party that was transferred on to navy ships by force. “They take them aboard and then they beat them,” claims his interviewee.

Two weeks later, George Roberts reports that “some passengers were forced by the navy to hold on to hot metal” and that “the local police chief backs the asylum-seekers’ story”.

Yesterday AM reported that “new details have emerged” about the incident. However, they are merely new allegations by a 20-year-old Somali man. They are difficult to reconcile with earlier reports of asylum-seekers being beaten “in an un-human way”.

He describes “two arguments” and then says he was “sprayed in the eyes”. “I couldn’t see anything, I stumbled on the engine and my hand got burnt.”

At last an account is emerging that sounds essentially believable. The navy intercepts asylum-seekers who are reluctant to turn back. An argument occurs in the engine room; navy officers fear that it may get out of hand; capsicum spray is used (“I felt a pain like chillies went in my eyes,” the asylum-seeker claims); and an accident occurs.

Arriving at an approximation of the truth through an interminable series of assertions and counter-assertions is a destructive way for reporters to go about their tasks, particularly when the ABC refuses to acknowledge its mistakes along the way. Inattention to facts and absence of rigorous examination is a consequence of the descent into activist journalism. The details on asylum-seekers or the environment are unimportant; it is the message that counts.

What happened to the vast “Pacific garbage patch”, the “plastic stew” floating between Hawaii and San Francisco, covering an area larger than Australia?

The ABC reported prominently in 2007 that it contained 40 times more plastic than plankton. The ABC seems not to have broadcast the respected report from oceanographers at Oregon State University four years later who found the amount of plastic in the ocean had been wildly exaggerated.

“It is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic,” said assistant professor Angelicque White.

“This kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists.”

Indeed. And that of broadcasters too.